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Welcome to the second and revised edition of

The ice-free


Download the chapters of the book below


Welcome to the second edition


Greenland is a true eldorado for photographers. Its people, mammals and birds have been thoroughly documented in various books. Beautiful landscapes or rugged rocks often form the background. This book focusses on the ice-free landscape of Greenland through words and pictures.


This book is written based on the perception that landscapes are constantly changing. At first glance, the arctic landscape may appear static, with its endless drylands and imposing high mountains – even after thousands of years of erosion. If one looks closer ...

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A changing climate

Greenland used to be green


More than 2 million years ago Greenland was situated further south. The average summer temperature was above 10 °C. Findings of e.g. insects and trees fragments show that at least a part of Greenland was covered with forests, as in nowadays northern Europe. Today, that is hard to imagine.


During the past 2 million years, Greenland has experienced alternating ice ages, each of them causing a varying area of Greenland to be covered by ice. Towards the end of the most recent ice age, the Ice Sheet extended far into the sea, leaving only few of the present ice-free areas uncovered. The few and isolated uncovered places included peaks reaching out of the surrounding ice (nunataks) or areas sheltered by mountains. Around 12,000 years ago, the land surface started to emerge due to the warming-induced retreat of the Ice Sheet. This warming culminated ...

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The emerging land

The secrets of the permafrost


Permafrost is soil or sediments that have been at or below the freezing point for at least two consecutive years. Permafrost covers about 25% of the land area on the Northern Hemisphere, and the same area contains almost 50% of the global soil organic carbon. If just a minor fraction of this organic matter is decomposed by microorganisms and released as a greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide or methane), it can affect the global greenhouse gas budget. Nevertheless, we know that the upper permafrost contains old carbon, which was not decomposed in earlier warmer periods. For instance, about 5,000 years ago, the Arctic experienced a warm period lasting more than 1,000 years, which is believed to have been warmer than today. Thus, a central question is how fast and how much carbon will possibly be released from the permafrost due to future climate changes?


Permafrost stabilizes a number of processes in the Arctic. However, when it thaws, the meltwater in the soil drains away, parts of the landscape can collapse, the erosion increases and decomposition processes in the soil accelerate. This physical degradation of the landscape has had a considerable impact on infrastructure, when e.g. buildings, pipes, roads and landfills are destabilized or destroyed. Because of the danger it poses ....

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The frozen past

Frozen mud – and worse to come


The drilling is going well. But just as we are handling the core, we notice a very special odor. We look at each other. Are we dreaming? This is the frozen past; a 4,000-year-old kitchen midden – a frozen dump from ancient people, thawing as we hold it in our hands. The odor of the past mixes with the fresh and cold winds coming from the Greenland Ice Sheet.


For more than 4,000 years, humans have inhabited Greenland, and throughout that time, the cold and aridity have provided excellent preservation conditions of cultural sites from these people. Findings include both the people themselves, who have been found as mummies and through their DNA, their tools, their dwellings and their kitchen middens. High water content in the topsoil and ...


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From ice to sea

The flow of the water


Precipitation in Greenland mainly falls as snow on the Ice Sheet. Snow and glacier ice move towards the ocean; a journey, which can potentially take more than 100,000 years. On its way, the ice shapes the landscape through erosion. When glaciers melt on land during the short summer season, large amounts of meltwater and sediments are being released.


When snow accumulates on land, it typically forms snowdrifts during the winter, which constitutes the primary supply of water to the rivers during early spring. Summer rain is likewise an important source of water. Especially during heavy precipitation, rain can cause landslides and increases the transport of water and sediment towards lower-lying parts of the landscape. Near the coast, where the landscape becomes flatter, the rivers become broader and the current velocity decreases. This causes the coarsest particles to settle while finer particles are being deposited further downstream in coastal deltas, whereas the smallest particles are carried all the way to the sea. In this chapter, we follow the water on its way from the Ice Sheet to the sea ...

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Plant adaptation

Plants – linking the soil and the atmosphere


The variety of flowers and colors adorning the Greenlandic landscape during both spring and autumn amazes and delights numerous visitors. Besides decorating the landscape, plants are also a link between the soil, with its nutrient pool, and the atmosphere, which contains major greenhouse gases such as water vapor, carbon dioxide and methane. An example of the important role of plants is their uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the growth phase. This process binds carbon in the plants, which can accumulate in the soil or be released to the atmosphere during plant decay. Both plant growth and decomposition are affected by climate change, and therefore the balance between the two has received much attention, not the least in the Arctic.


This chapter is about the growth of plants and the link to climate change. New research has shown that, in this context, plant roots have often been overlooked. While it is well-known that the majority of carbon in arctic plants ...

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DSC_3357 Disko_ceg.jpg

Farming – now and in the future

Sheep in Greenland

You do not find many places in Greenland where you can wake up to the sound of chickens and sheep. In Igaliku in South Green-land, you can. Because of some fencing problems some sheep have found their way into the little settlement. The sheep dogs keep a lazy eye on them. The dogs’ time will come: just before winter the sheep will be gathered, the lambs will be shipped to the slaughter house, while the mother sheep are kept in stables.


Sheep farming in Greenland dates back to the Norsemen more than 1,000 years ago. Back then – as today – the number of sheep was dependent on the winter fodder production near the farms. The yields in the fields depend on both the climate and the soil. The latest climate model for South Greenland suggests that the average temperature will be 3-6 ⁰C higher and that the growing season will increase from the current 100 days to over 150 days within the next 30 years. This may result in an increased hay production for winter feeding. Additionally, new fields and perhaps completely new areas may become available for farming. However, there are many questions ...

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Methane in the Arctic

More than one side to the methane budget

Methane is a simple hydrocarbon compound. One carbon atom bound to four hydrogen atoms (CH4), which is gaseous at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. Methane is produced by microorganisms, for instance in the soil, as a product in the anaerobe degradation of organic matter. For this reason, methane is also called natural gas. A large part of the atmospheric methane is a product of human activities, primarily agriculture. Methane is also a greenhouse gas that is 25-30 times stronger than carbon dioxide (CO2). During the past 200 years, the atmospheric content of methane has more than doubled from 0.8 to 1.8 ppm (1 ppm equals 0.0001%). The atmospheric methane content was stable in the period 1998- 2008, but has since started to increase again.


The thawing of permafrost

The latest warming of the climate, in particular in terrestrial arctic areas, has caused the permafrost in many areas to thaw. This thawing has caused parts of the landscape to collapse. In areas with ice-rich permafrost, the thawing creates new wetlands, from where methane can ...

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The polar dessert

North Greenland

The airplane takes off, and the ice-free mosaic-like landscape stands out against the deep blue fjords and sea and the white Ice Sheet. The mind wanders while the airplane heads north towards Peary Land, the northernmost ice-free part of Greenland. The lushness of the southern latitudes disappears, and the features of the landscape appear harsher and rougher. On the hillsides, brown colors glow in the sunshine, and the erosion here is so frequent that only few plants can get a foothold. Also the flatter parts of the landscape are more or less devoid of vegetation – the cold winds blow away the snow, and only few plants can combat these forces of nature. The summer can be warm, but the soils are dry in many places, and in some places white crusts of salt have formed because evaporation exceeds the precipitation in the summer. And yet, there is life here. Even in the most exposed, relentless places, microorganisms, lichens, mosses, plants and small animals have found new ways to survive, and even small oases can be found with lushness matching the southerly latitudes.....

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